The Thessalonian Epistles
Q: I have to do a speech on Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. I need to break them down chapter by chapter and explain in detail what Paul is saying but they confuse me! Would you please help my basic understanding so I can put together a decent presentation?
A: I’m happy to help as I can. I’ve provided a summary that should help almost anyone with the basics of these books. I leave it to you to put meat on these bones by examples from the books and through your own observations and analysis. God bless your project. As we begin, keep in mind that the chapter and verse numbers were assigned long after the apostle penned his epistles. Sometimes the divisions make sense, sometimes they don’t.
In reading these epistles, you’ll benefit from remembering that eschatology (the study or theology of the end times) is the primary reason for Paul writing the Thessalonian Christians. Just as we find in our present day, the people of Thessalonika had unclear, unscriptural ideas about the end of the world and the Final Judgment. And just as Paul set them straight, so we turn to the Word of God so that we are prepared for our own deaths and for world’s end.
Paul begins with a short and sweet greeting in 1 Thessalonians 1:1. By greatest contrast, in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul composed a single sentence of 132 words (in the ESV translation) as the greeting. However, this doesn’t mean that Paul isn’t concerned with these people. Instead, it seems that he wants to get on to highlights of what he shares with them before addressing their questions and confronting issues upsetting the congregation.
Verses 2-10 celebrate the faith shared by Paul with his readers. They also celebrate Thessalonian generosity and anticipate one of the major issues the apostle is going to address; that is, the Resurrection. Notice how all his hard work and all their generosity and good reputation are credited to the doings of the Holy Spirit.
Chapter 2 continues the love-fest. Verses 1-16 compare and contrast Thessalonika’s reception of the Gospel and its response to God’s grace with that of other people. Paul also reminds them of their obligation to listen to him because of his long, hard work among them. They remain his dear children, just as they were in the early days of his mission works, when he and his coworkers “were gentle among [them], like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. (v. 7)”
The chapter closes with Paul’s expression of hope to see them again, should God allow it. As I noted, chapter and verse divisions were applied at a later date. We see this clearly, since his desire for a visit continues through 3:5. Chapter 3 then notes the great news he’s heard about them from Timothy (vv. 6-10). It closes with a prayer that all the good that’s been started would be blessed and completed by God so the saints in Thessalonika are ready for Jesus’ return (vv. 6-10). Paul is apparently foreshadowing what’s soon to come.
In chapter 4:1-12, we find a general summary of good Christian behavior. Unlike the severe tone Paul takes at times with the Galatians (e.g., Galatians 1:6 and 3:1-4) or the Corinthians (e.g., 1 Corinthians 3:1-4; 5:1-13; 6:1-8; 11:17-22; and others), he largely acknowledges their godliness, particularly their "brotherly love (v. 9) shown by their generosity.
Verses 13-17 address the main theological point. Evidently, someone had been worrying them that there would be some sort of ongoing separation between the living and the dead when Christ returned. In response, Paul first tells them that grief at the death of a loved one is good and right, as long as they mourn in the hope of the Resurrection. This separates them from the pagans “who have no hope. (v. 13)” He then tells them that at Jesus’ return, the dead will be resurrected before all believers are taken to be with the Lord.
Chapter 5:1-11 tells them not to get stuck wondering when the Day of the Lord will happen. Instead, they are to be ready always, a point Jesus made several times, including Matthew 24-25. Finally, Paul again encourages their good behavior, pronounces a blessing, and solicits their prayers on his behalf. In 5:27, he commands them to make sure that “all the brothers” hear his words. This is the seventh time that “brothers” appears in Chapter 5, emphasizing the fellowship in the faith Paul has with these believers. He closes by blessing them yet again.
Paul’s second letter picks up where the first leaves off. After the formal greeting and brief thanksgiving (vv. 1-4), he gets back into the End Times. He connects whatever suffering they experience for the Gospel with God’s care for them (vv. 5-8). He encourages them during current and impending persecutions, telling them that those who afflict them will be judged and punished by God (vv. 9-10). Therefore, they should persist in their Christian faith and life (vv. 11-12).
Chapter 2:1-12 warns them that greater persecutions are ahead for the Church. Christians, not only in Thessalonika but everywhere, will experience the tyranny of the “man of lawlessness. (v. 3)” These evils will spread and grow in the succeeding years.
Compare this section with Jesus’ warnings about “false christs and false prophets (Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22)” and Paul’s cautions against “false apostles” in 2 Corinthians 11:13 and the “false brothers” of Galatians 2:4. See also the warnings concerning the antichrist(s) in 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3 and 2 John 1:7. Here, Paul also anticipates the beast and the harlot of Revelation. It becomes chillingly clear to the faithful: Wickedness will be worked against the true Church from both within and without. The threat of growing persecution would certainly give them pause. Therefore, Paul uses verses 13-17 to encourage them to stand strong in the Faith, trusting in the Lord to comfort and strengthen them.
Just as Paul prays that God will support the Thessalonians, so Chapter 3 opens with a request for prayers from them . Then he lets them know that the evils that will confront the Thessalonians will also face him and his coworkers (vv. 1-5).
His command against idleness in verses 6-15 connects to earlier mentions of the End Times in both letters. Paul doesn’t want them lazing around, waiting for Jesus to come back to end it all. Instead, they should continue lives of love and service, just as Christ loved and served them.
He closes with the benediction (v. 16) and shows them a special sign of his affection. Even though he dictated the rest of the letter, he takes the pen for himself to conclude: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. (vv. 17-18)”
Other posts involving the end times include The Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats and Recorded in the Book of Life.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Newspaper column #581